Mister Johnson
by Joyce Cary

“Fada is the ordinary town of the Western Sudan. It has no beauty, convenience or health. It is a dwellling-place at one stage from the rabbit warren or the badger burrow; and not so cleanly kept as the latter. It is a pioneer settlement five or six hundred years old, built on its own rubbish heaps, without charm even of antiquity. Its squalor and its stinks are all new. Its oldest compounds, except the Emir's mud box, is not even twenty years old. The sun and the rain destroy all its antiquity, even of smell. But neither has it the freshness of the new. All its mud walls are eaten as if by smallpox; half of the mats in any compound are always rotten. Poverty and ignorance, the absolute government of jealous savages, conservative as only the savage can be, have kept it at the first frontier of civilization. Its people would not know the change if time jumped back fifty thousand years. They live like mice or rats in a palace floor; all the magnificence and variety of the arts, the ideas, the learning and the battles of civilization go on over their heads and they do not even imagine them.

“Fada has not been able to achieve its own native arts or the characteristic beauty of its country. There are no flowering trees or irrigated gardens; no painted or molded courtyard walls.

“The young boys, full of curiosity and enterprise, grow quickly into old, anxious men, content with mere existence. Peace has been brought to them, but no glory of living; some elementary court-justice, but no glory of living; some elementary court-justice, but no liberty of mind. An English child in Fada, with eyes that still see what is in front of them, would be terrified by the dirt, the stinks, the great sores on naked bodies, the twisted limbs, the babies with their enormous swollen stomachs and their hernias; the whole place, flattened upon the earth like the scab of a wound, would strike it as something between a prison and a hospital. But to Celia it is simply a native town. It has been labeled for her, in a dozen magazines and snapshots, long before she comes to it. Therefore she does not see it at all. She does not see the truth of its real being, but the romance of her ideas, and it seems to her like the house of the unspoiled primitive, the simple dwelling-place of unsophisticated virtue.”

A comment before my review: After reviewing The Village of Waiting, I received the following letter from a visitor to my page:

“....I just had to send you some mail to voice my frustration with the consistently unsympathetic, intolerant, and condescending tone that almost every Togo RPCV I've ever met has taken to George Packer's book. While I agree that my vision of Togo would be nothing like George Packer's, I'm also willing to admit that on some days, it was. Every volunteer, just like every other person in the world, has days or weeks when lots of things seem annoying, when cultural differences are not just confusing, but completely disorienting. I really wish that people would allow George Packer the space to experience Togo in his own way, instead of immediately dismissing his view because he was just a wimp that ETd. I always thought that Peace Corps volunteers were supposed to be more tolerant than that. And I can't believe that any RPCV who's honest with themselves won't admit that on at least one occasion, they found the food unappetizing, their host country counterparts or neighbors incomprehensible, and that constant "Yovo, Yovo, Bonsoir" song from the children unbelievably annoying. I've grown to believe that the immediately hostile reaction to the book is an indication that "real volunteers" don't admit having those feelings and therefore have to attack anyone who says that they do. If you read the book objectively and move past Packer's admittedly negative personal disposition, there is a lot of truth to it.”

Here's how I responded:

.... I appreciate your note (really!) even though you don't agree with me.... I guess what I would say is that Packer has every right to have had a bad time in Togo and to write with skill a book about his negative impression of the country and his stay.... but by the same token, I have every right to dislike his book, and to find it whiney and lacking in perspective.

May I have your permission to post your note to my page? It would be fun to start a dialogue on the subject. Your choice as to whether I give your name and email address.

Thanks again! Always nice to hear from visitors to my page, even if they don't agree with me. (By the way, as to me not liking it because it has negative things to say about Togo.... just wait until you see next month's Review of the Month!)

Well, I never heard back from my correspondant, but I guess I can honorably post the letter as long as I don't pass out any names. Anyway, Mister Johnson, as you can see from the quote above, can be brutal in its description of African life. However, I love this book.... it's one of my all time favorite books about Africa. It's tough without being whiney, and brilliantly critical in its description of both the Africans and the British colonizers who try to impose their culture on them.

The story takes place in Nigeria, during the British colonial period. The title character is an African clerk, with an outrageous personality. He is not meant to be a “typical African” in any sense: he both charms and scandalizes nearly everyone who gets to know him, both British and African. The one similarity the author (in an afterward) sees between Johnson and other Africans is his “warmheartedness.... his readiness for friendship on the smallest encouragement.”

I don't want to spend too much time on this review, so let me just say this: read this book. I can't promise you you'll approve of the writer's 1939 consciousness (that's when the book was written), but I can just about guarantee that he'll introduce you to a character whom you will never forget. I give it: ***½ (out of ****)

This book may well be available at your local library; or you can order if from Amazon Books Online for about $8 plus $4 shipping.

By the way, this book was made into a movie that I quite enjoyed, and that captured the spirit of the title character quite well. It was directed by Bruce Beresford, of Driving Miss Daisy fame, and stars Maynard Eziashi, Pierce Brosnan (yes, that Pierce Brosnan), and Edward Woodward. Here's what Roger Ebert said about the film “.... What they are doing here is quiet and rather tricky. They're not banging the audience over the head with the injustice of what happens to Johnson, but trying to re-create a moment in colonial history when many people, both white and black, believed in the rhetoric of official idealism, even while it was rotting from within. The result is a very subtle film, one where the ideas are sometimes in danger of being overwhelmed by the sheer exuberence of Eaiashi's performance.... The movie, like the Cary novel, allows us to find its truth in our own way.” If you really want to see it and can't find it at your local video rental store, send me an email; I have a copy I'll lend for free for a month, provided you pay shipping ($3 each way) and send me a deposit to keep if you don't return it.

Back to The Friends of Togo Guide to Books about Africa